Ascending Doubt and Fear
Before Jesus ascends from sight of the Apostles, we are told that “When they saw [Jesus], they worshiped, but they doubted.” What is it that the eleven Apostles doubt? They have been with Him both before and after His resurrection, so do they doubt that it is actually Jesus who is in their presence? Nope. Is it possible that they doubt that Jesus is true God and true man? They saw Him suffer, they saw Him bleed, and at least one of them saw Him die. No, they could not really doubt Jesus’ humanity. He was as much a man as they were, and much more. How much more? “When they saw Him, they worshipped.”
Coming from a culture that had zero tolerance considering mere humans to be divine, it is hard to imagine that the Apostles were worshiping Jesus while doubting His divinity. The Apostles would have also known that none of the pharaohs or caesars had conquered death despite their alleged status as gods. They were all dead, dead as Julius Caesar. It is much more likely that the Apostles had to be utterly convinced of Jesus’ divinity before they would ever think about worshipping Him.
So what or whom did they doubt? It was not Jesus they doubted, but themselves. The Apostles knew that Jesus would leave them. The prospect of Jesus’ physical departure must have seemed quite unnerving. They had to know that Jesus’ mission, calling people to repent and believe in Him, would be their mission now. When Jesus says to the Apostles “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations,” they had to wonder how eleven ordinary men could accomplish such a mission. After all, Jesus and the twelve made how much progress in three years? So how could they do any better in His absence? Also it would not have been just doubt running through their minds but a profound fear as well.
All they had to do is to ponder the fate of John the Baptist and Jesus Himself. This proclaiming of the Kingdom was dangerous stuff. But it was not just the evangelizing that would have been daunting: Jesus tells them “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The call to be witnesses would have confirmed their fears because the word for witness came to mean martyr. It is possible that the Apostles understood Jesus to be saying “you will be my [martyrs] in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” No wonder they stared into the heavens hoping Jesus would return immediately. But the angels pop their balloon, telling the Apostles that He would not be back until He returns in glory at the end of time.
Given an impossible job that comes with suffering and death, most would consider a change in careers. Nevertheless, they were chosen by Jesus and they were sent, not just to baptize and to preach, but to make Christ present in the world. We all have this same basic mission, to bring people to Christ. How each of us does this is our vocation, either to married life, unmarried life, religious life, or priestly life.
Remain single and chaste the rest of my life or until I marry? Be married to one person for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, all the days of my life? Forsake marriage, renounce possessions, and obey my superiors? Shepherd hundreds or thousands of families, preaching and teaching, and making Christ present to others? No matter how we look at it, every vocation involves what seems to be a dismayingly impossible task that entails some degree of suffering, perhaps even martyrdom. This is why we have a crisis in the priesthood, religious life, and in marriage while single-life, the precursor to the other vocations, is a shambles today. Being what God calls us to be and doing what He asks us to do seem impossible. We see this in our society’s cynical attitude toward the four vocations.
But how did previous generations do the impossible? The answer lies in how the apostles were able to do the seemingly impossible. They were not much different than us, yet this did not hinder them or stop them from doing things far beyond what they thought possible. So what was their secret? We need only look at their response to Jesus’ Ascension. They did not give in to fear and doubt, but instead they turned to prayer. They prayed together for nine days. Likewise, their prayer was done with a spirit of trust because the Apostles took Jesus’ words seriously: “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” He abided with the Apostles, and He will be with us too, so we have nothing to fear and no one to doubt if we take Jesus’ words seriously.